In his 2007 book The Assault on Reason, former Vice President Al Gore warned about what he saw as a dire threat to American democracy. “The 'well-informed citizenry,’” Gore fretted, ”is in danger of becoming the 'well-amused audience.'” In a presentation on Super Tuesday 2008 (“That’s Entertainment: Politics as Theater in Campaign ‘08”), I elaborated on Gore’s alert.
When politics is entertainment, the first thing that suffers is the truth.
More than nine years later, the American people have a professional entertainer in the Oval Office. And as recent headlines have shown, the truth is suffering indeed. Despite the unified assessment of the U.S. intelligence community that Vladimir Putin’s Russia interfered in the 2016 election, only one-third of Republicans polled believe it. Other surveys found that 72 percent of Trump voters said stories about Russia are “fake news,” with 32 percent even rejecting the claim that Donald Jr. met with Russians in June 2016, a fact the president’s son had already admitted. The self-delusion also applies to the 2016 popular vote, which half of Trump supporters believe he won despite falling 3 million ballots short of Hillary Clinton in yet another election free of vote fraud.
And on Wednesday, a YouGov/Economist poll revealed that 55 percent of the #MAGA crowd “believe ‘the courts’ should be allowed to ‘fine news media outlets for publishing or broadcasting stories that are biased or inaccurate’ — while 45 percent say that the judiciary should have the power to ‘shut down’ biased media organizations.” Meanwhile, the Trump administration and some of its allies in the House responded to the GOP’s latest humiliation at the hands of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office by seeking to slash its staffing or abolish the neutral scorekeeper altogether.
As horrifying as these numbers are, they shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, with the Trump White House elevating “alternative facts” over supposed “fake news,” slandering the press as an “enemy of the people,” brushing off allegations of collusion and business conflicts with Russian interests as a “Democratic hoax,” and so much more, the Trump faithful are getting their talking points straight from the elephant’s mouth. But while the frequency and magnitude of Trump’s lies far exceed any American major party politician, his strategic deceptions and tactical duplicity are nothing new under the Republican sun.
On matters of war and peace, health care and taxes, the economy and the environment, the GOP has been a myth-making machine for years. And when the government’s own experts and nonpartisan watchdogs debunked the Republicans’ fact-free frauds, the GOP directed its fire at them.
Just ask the people who work at the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA)—or, more accurately, worked at the Office of Technology Assessment.
Decades before Donald Trump gutted the EPA, fired scientific advisers, and wiped government web sites to advance his scam that climate change is a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese, Republicans first declared war on science.
In the 1990's, the GOP"s Congressional leadership led by Newt Gingrich successfully undermined and defunded another trusted nonpartisan authority, the Office of Technology Assessment. As Chris Mooney explained in his classic, The Republican War on Science, Gingrich and his allies saw the destruction of the OTA as essential to their strategy of "manufacturing uncertainty" about acid rain, global warming, CFCs, and so much else. It's no surprise Republicans had their knives out for what one Democratic representative described as a "defense against the dumb." When the internationally admired (and cited) OTA was finally gutted by 1996, Lord Kennet, the driving force behind Europe's own network of OTAs, could only shake his head in astonishment:
"That the leading technological state in the world, a democracy like us, could have abolished its own main means of democratic assessment left us aghast."
What should leave everyone aghast is what Americans still believe to be true about the 9/11 attacks and the war in Iraq.
Consider, for example, the thoroughly debunked claim that the Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. In October 2004—18 months after the invasion—director Charles Duelfer of the Iraq Survey Group rejected the Bush administration’s causus belli. His report, the Washington Post reported, “contradicts nearly every prewar assertion made by top administration officials about Iraq.” Among those assertions was this one from Vice President Dick Cheney on August 26, 2002:
“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us. And there is no doubt that his aggressive regional ambitions will lead him into future confrontations with his neighbors -- confrontations that will involve both the weapons he has today, and the ones he will continue to develop with his oil wealth.”
Two years later, the Iraq Survey Group concluded, “We were almost all wrong.” As the Post explained, “The 1991 Persian Gulf War and subsequent U.N. inspections destroyed Iraq's illicit weapons capability and, for the most part, Saddam Hussein did not try to rebuild it.” Nevertheless, in August 2006 a Harris poll found that one-half of Americans believed Saddam had WMD, up from 36 percent the year before. A 2012 YouGov poll “found that fully 63 percent of Republican respondents still believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded in 2003. By contrast, 27 percent of independents and 15 percent of Democrats shared that view.” And in January 2015, almost 12 years after U.S. troops rolled into Iraq, a Public Mind poll from Fairleigh Dickinson University revealed:
[M]ore than half of Republicans — 51 percent — and half of those who watch Fox News — 52 percent — say that they believe it to be “definitely true” or “probably true” that American forces found an active weapons of mass destruction program in Iraq.
The numbers on the twin Republican zombie myth about Iraq—that Saddam’s regime was involved in the September 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on the United States—are similarly disturbing. Just days before President Bush ordered “shock and awe” in Baghdad, 45 percent of those surveyed by the New York Times and CBS thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved. In the fall of 2003, nearly 70 percent of Americans wrongly believed this. On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 slaughter, a University of Maryland survey found that “38% believe that the US has found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with Al Qaeda,” and“31% believe that Iraq gave substantial support to Al Qaeda but was not involved with the September attacks while an additional 15% believe that Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the September 11 attacks.” According to Public Policy Polling, the numbers had declined by 2013, though 33 percent of Republicans (compared to 22 percent of Democrats) still believed the discredited assertion that Osama Bin Laden’s 9/11 killers had Saddam’s active support.
Why the persistence of the lies so many still believe about Iraq? For one thing, consider this 2009 statement from former Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer about why his boss launched the war on Iraq:
"After September 11th having been hit once how could we take a chance that Saddam might strike again? And that's the threat that has been removed and I think we are all safer with that threat removed." [Emphasis mine.]
But the departure of the George W. Bush administration in January 2009 did not mean the GOP threat to the truth had been removed. When that supposed socialist Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States, right-wing rage was repackaged as the tea party and the conservative myth-making machine deployed in its service. And in a sign of media failures to come, virtually everything that manufactured movement claimed to believe was simply untrue.
The tea party, after all, took its name after the rantings of CNBC regular Rick Santelli. In what he later called “the best five minutes of my life,” Santelli on February 8, 2009 “decried government bailouts, called struggling homeowners ‘losers’ and speculated aloud that a new Tea Party might be needed.” But there was no “cram-down” for the banks and no mortgage bailout for homeowners.
But there were also no “death panels.” Barack Obama wasn’t born in Kenya and he isn’t a Muslim. You can’t demand to “keep government out of Medicare” because it is a government program. Republicans holding “Taxed Enough Already” signs were doubly deluded. By 2010, federal tax revenue as a percentage of the U.S. economy dropped to its lowest level since 1950. And with his 2009 stimulus program, President Obama didn’t just deliver tax relief to 95 percent of working households: His was the largest two-year tax cut in American history. As a CBS poll found in February 2010:
Of people who support the grassroots, "Tea Party" movement, only 2 percent think taxes have been decreased, 46 percent say taxes are the same, and a whopping 44 percent say they believe taxes have gone up.
(That wasn’t the only epic math failure for the tea party. After the “9/12” rally in Washington drew an estimated 70,000 people to the nation’s capital, FreedomWorks president Matt Kibbe comically inflated the crowd size to 2 million. As statistician extraordinaire Nate Silver concluded, “Kibbe wasn't ‘in error’, as [Michelle] Malkin gently puts it. He lied. He did the equivalent of telling people that his penis is 53 inches long.”)
The story of the 2010 midterms that swept away the Democratic House majority was the triumph of delusion. It wasn’t simply, as the New York Times asked in advance of the vote, “What if a president cut Americans' income taxes by $116 billion and nobody noticed?” Indeed, what if the House GOP budget plan used the same $760 billion in Medicare savings from Obamacare to give tax breaks to the rich and the Republicans then campaigned by saying Democrats would kill the Medicare program the GOP itself intended to privatize? What if everything Republican voters said they knew about the Affordable Care Act was wrong? As NBC reported in August 2009:
In our poll, 72% of self-identified FOX News viewers believe the health-care plan will give coverage to illegal immigrants, 79% of them say it will lead to a government takeover, 69% think that it will use taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions, and 75% believe that it will allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing care for the elderly.
The answer to all of those “what if” scenarios was the biggest midterm rout since Republicans whited out LBJ’s Great Society majority in 1966. And after seizing the House majority in 2012, the GOP wanted the Senate and the White House, too.
The new GOP plan of conquest was much like the old one. Once again, the Republicans would combine far-right fury with another wave of tried and untrue talking points. No matter that Obamacare reduces the national debt and was not a “government takeover of health care.” So what if decades of data showed that higher taxes on “job creators” do not hurt the economy and that the estate tax has little impact on small businesses and family farms. Big deal if the nonpartisan CBO and the overwhelming consensus of economists concluded the stimulus resulted in millions of additional jobs and a significant boost to American GDP? For that matter, who gives a hoot if the record shows that the U.S. economy almost always does better when a Democrat is in the White House? And who cares if Mitt Romney’s shameless lie that Obama “made the economy worse” was thoroughly debunked throughout the campaign?
For Republicans, this platform of deceit was a feature, not a bug. The GOP claims were not actually true, as Stephen Colbert once summed it up, but felt like they should be true. And for Jon Kyl, then the second-ranking Senate Republican revealed in 2011, that was all that mattered. After the Arizona senator was off by a factor of 30 when he declared on the Senate floor that abortion is “well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does,” Kyl’s office released a statement explaining:
“His remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, a[n] organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions.” [Emphasis mine.]
Mercifully, the pathologically dishonest Mitt Romney did not capture the White House. By Election Day 2012, his gymnastic flip-flops, chronic lying, and conveniently selective amnesia were summed up by terms like the “post-truth campaign” and the “Romney Uncertainty Principle.” Steven Benen’s series “Chronicling Mitt’s Mendacity” reached volume 41 by the time voters went to the ballot box. And in a hint of things to come, Romney had not only accepted Donald Trump’s endorsement in 2012, but mimicked his tactics by referring to President Obama as “extraordinarily foreign” and telling voters, “No one's ever asked to see my birth certificate.”
But in 2014, Democrats weren’t so lucky. Despite the improving economy and the success of Obamacare in controlling health care costs and reducing the rolls of the uninsured, the GOP won big again. Democrats were wiped out in the states while Kentucky Republican Mitch McConnell replaced Harry Reid as the new Senate Majority Leader.
But it wasn’t just dismal midterm turnout and the GOP’s voter intensity advantage that won the day. Truth had lost.
In September 2013, NBC Meet the Press host Chuck Todd inadvertently helped explain why. Correcting the GOP’s Obamacare falsehoods, Todd lectured former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, was not the media’s job:
"But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it. They don't repeat the other stuff because they haven't even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, 'Well, it's you folks' fault in the media.' No, it's the President of the United States' fault for not selling it."
Four years and six months of the Trump administration later, Chuck Todd is having a long-overdue change of heart, if only because the media is in the Republican cross-hairs. Stunned at Donald Trump’s speed-of-light lying and threats to the press, Todd in February warned that a “toxic fog” is descending on U.S. politics. By last month, the Meet the Press host declared:
"I'm obsessed with the White House's war on the press and on media. And let's be clear about this: that war is nothing less than a war on the truth."
And when it comes to the GOP crusade to destroy the Affordable Care Act, Republicans are deploying the same tools—blatant lies—to pass their Obamacare “replacement” that they used to torpedo the Democratic majority before and after its passage. And when the message from the CBO exposed the runaway GOP falsehoods, the Trump White House and Capitol Hill Republicans targeted the messenger for execution.
Three weeks after House Republicans voted to pass a new version of their “American Health Care Act” in late May, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) weighed in on high-profile pledges from President Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan. While Trump guaranteed “insurance for everybody” that is “much less expensive and much better,” Ryan insisted the revised AHCA “protects people with pre-existing conditions.” Not content to rest there, HHS Secretary Tom Price boasted that Trumpcare’s $880 billion in cuts to Medicaid will "absolutely not" result in millions losing coverage.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration also unveiled its fiscal year 2018 budget proposal. With its draconian spending cuts to the social safety net programs, the White House blueprint was proclaimed “dead on arrival” even by some Republicans. But more embarrassing to Donald Trump was its double-counting of $2 trillion in revenue for Uncle Sam magically generated by “sustained, 3 percent economic growth.” As Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin declared a month ago, “the plan will pay for itself with growth.”
Unfortunately for the White House and GOP leaders on Capitol Hill, the CBO demolished all of those Republican myths. Again. That’s because whether the issue is health care, taxes, job numbers, or the impact of President Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus, the acronym “CBO” doesn’t just stand for “Congressional Budget Office.” It’s also shorthand for “Conservative Bulls**t Obliterator.”
From the beginning of the Obamacare debate in 2009, CBO has been a thorn in Republicans’ sides. Every score showed the ACA would enable at least 20 million Americans to obtain health insurance while reducing the national debt. Every assessment of the GOP’s myriad ACA repeal bills confirmed the reverse. That’s why a frustrated Eric Cantor accused the agency of “budget gimmickry.” It’s also while short-lived 2012 GOP presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich whined, “If you are serious about real health reform, you must abolish the Congressional Budget Office because it lies.” And with the Congressional Budget Office under the GOP’s hand-picked director Keith Hall savaging the House Republican American Health Care Act (AHCA), the Senate GOP Better Care Reconciliation Act (BCRA), the Ted Cruz Obamacare Repeal Reconciliation Act (ORRA) and Mitch McConnell’s “Skinny Repeal,” it’s no wonder desperate members of Team Trump are calling for the death penalty. Echoing Gingrich’s January 2017 proclamation that “the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is simply incompatible with the Trump era,” Trump budget chief Mick Mulvaney warned:
“At some point, you've got to ask yourself, has the day of the CBO come and gone?”
With Republicans poised to push for a Treasury-draining tax cut windfall for the wealthy, conservatives are doubtless going to be asking that question again soon. After all, CBO Director Hall—chosen by Tom Price and Paul Ryan to implement the “dynamic scoring” approach the GOP has favored for years—has already blown up the GOP’s Ur Lie that “tax cuts pay for themselves.” Even accounting for the “macroeconomic feedback” from tax cuts—that is, the tax revenue from the extra economic activity they theoretically incentivize—Hall warned in August 2015:
“No, the evidence is that tax cuts do not pay for themselves. And our models that we're doing, our macroeconomic effects, show that."
As we’ve learned by now, the truth will not set Donald Trump and his accomplices free. CBO analyses simply will not show the 3, 4, 5, or 6 percent economic growth candidate/President Trump promised. And Keith Hall already disappointed Team Trump about the job numbers produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics he once led. Earlier this year, Office of Management Budget (OMB) Director Mulvaney complained:
"We've thought for a long time, I did, that the Obama administration was manipulating the numbers in terms of the number of people in the workforce to make the unemployment rate, that percentage rate, look smaller than it actually was.”
For his part, Hall essentially called that bullsh*t years ago. “I think it would be impossible to really manipulate the numbers. Certainly, it would be impossible to manipulate the numbers and not be found out."
“There’s nothing wrong with the numbers,” said Mr. Hall. “The only issue is the interpretation of the numbers. The numbers are what they are.”
But that won’t stop President Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and House Speaker Paul Ryan from trying, in the words of President Bush, “to catapult the propaganda.” And as the lessons from the rise of Donald Trump suggest, there is a dangerous possibility they will succeed again. To update the 19th century British conservative, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and fake news. And for the Republican Party of the 21st century, that assault on truth is a feature, not a bug.